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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Save the Children: Religion, Politics, and International Adoptions in America


oh luncheon

On March 1, Arissa Oh, associate professor in the history department at Boston College, came to the Boisi Center for a luncheon colloquium discussing the history of international adoption in the United States. Oh drew on her book, To Save the Children of Korea: The Cold War Origins of International Adoption, to explain how the practice, language, and culture surrounding international adoption has developed and changed from the Cold War to today.

Oh speaking

Oh began her talk by showing a brief video about the “Global Orphan Crisis”—an idea that was appropriated by the Evangelical adoption movement. According to Oh, the movement includes hundreds of organizations nationwide that are committed to solving this “orphan crisis” by promoting international adoption in congregations. The trouble, Oh pointed out, is that there is no “Global Orphan Crisis” and the vast majority of so-called “orphans” are children who may have lost one parent or are living with extended family.

Describing the origins of international adoption, Oh pointed to the American adoption of “G.I. babies” in Korea—the children of American soldiers and Korean women conceived during the Korean War—as the dawn of what would eventually become a practice in other nations as well. Oh gave the example of Harry Holt. Holt’s agency, Holt International, caters to Christian clientele and remains the largest international adoption agency in the world. Holt was an Evangelical Christian and farmer who became famous for adopting eight GI babies from the Korean War. Oh noted that, despite Holt’s Christian focus, the United States government was not entirely comfortable with purely religious reasons for adoption. Advocates for international adoption argued that the practice could demonstrate the benevolence, tolerance, and open-mindedness of the United States—especially in comparison to its Cold War competitors, the Soviet Union.

Oh Luncheon

According to Oh, Evangelical adoption took off in a time of general decline in international adoption. Today, the Evangelical adoption movement is becoming more engaged in conversations on the ethics of adoption and of removing children from their cultural/racial contexts. Increasingly, international adoption is being de-emphasized, while organizations and congregations are becoming more focused on family preservation internationally and foster care domestically. Oh noted her interesting position as “a historian studying something that might be coming to an end.”

Attendees discussed the differences between public motivation and individual reasons for adoption, the future of international adoption in the U.S., and the potential impacts of the new administration. 

Photos by MTS Photography